Boa Morte – Index

The Boa Morte festival takes place in the small town of Cahcoeira, 120 km’s from Salvador at the beginning of August. Reminiscent of secret female societies in Africa, the Sisterhood of the Boa Morte worship the iyá’s, the female spirits of the dead. A “good death” (or Boa Morte) was seen as being a proper passage from the material to the spiritual world, no longer a slave. It is deeply syncretised with the Fest of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is perhaps the most important festival in the African Heritage calendar in Bahia and is a living document of African culture and Diaspora to the New World.Over time the festival has grown in popularity and today it is covered by national television cameras. It is a very popular tourist attraction.

History

The festival takes place in the pretty Bahian town of Cachoeira, in an area called the Recôncavo, some of Brazil’s most fertile, productive land.

Five hundred years ago, the Portuguese colonists cleared the land to grow sugar cane and, later, tobacco on these rolling hills. After an unsuccessful attempt at enslaving the local Indians, they imported vast numbers of slaves from Africa to work their fields. Cachoeira flourished as a river port, linking inland agriculture to the ships waiting 70 miles southeast in the Salvador harbor. By 1878, the town’s population was 7,000 – 2,000 of them slaves.

A decade later, Brazil’s monopoly of the world’s sugar production had ended and new roads were replacing river transport. The town stopped in its tracks, its colonial architecture left to crumble.

Today, Cachoeira’s biggest tourist attraction is the Festival of the Boa Morte, the good death. Each year, the Boa Morte sisterhood, a group of mostly elderly women descended from African slaves, put on their finest ceremonial clothes and jewelry to participate in three days of Masses, parades, public feasts and dancing in honor of the Virgin Mary.

The Sisterhood

The Boa Morte sisterhood was founded in the early 19th century, ostensibly with purely religious intentions to pray for the dead and to provide decent funerals for its members. In fact, the members also intended to preserve African traditions and to free slaves, either by helping them escape or by earning money to buy their freedom. Although the group was the female equivalent of Catholic lay brotherhoods, the Boa Morte’s relationship to the church was never formalized. In the 1980′s a priest in Cachoeira confiscated the sisterhood’s property, including precious jewelry, religious statues and a sandal bearing the image of the Virgin. A young lawyer, Celina Maria Sala, came to their aid, pursuing the case through several appeals and finally finding 19th-century paperwork proving that the sisters, not the church, owned the items. The case was resolved in 1998, but Ms. Sala continues to take a lively interest – now functioning as a festival organizer and liaison with the growing number of curious outsiders who come to the celebration.

The Festival is organized by the Boa Morte Sisterhood and is made up of 25 elderly women who are descendants of slaves.

The Festival

On the surface, the festival is purely, ardently Catholic, but the reality is more complicated. The name of the festival refers not only to the good death of Mary, who, according to scripture, ascended into heaven, but to slaves who managed to become free during their lifetimes. The Catholic rites are only part of the celebration; there are other religious, social and political subtexts.

On the first day of the festival the ladies, in their best clothes and jewelry parade through the streets holding a Virgin Mary statue. They celebrate mass and then have a public feast featuring fried fish. The second day mourns the death of Mary. The tone is very somber and there is no celebration. The sisterhood wears mourning with no jewelry. The third day celebrates Mary’s resurrection. A statue of her is set in the church adorned with an abundance of local flowers. After mass the sisterhood parades back to their headquarters where they hold a samba de roda, a Bahain version of the Samba.

Attending the Festivities

The festival is gaining in popularity, especially due to the interests of the national press who broadcast the final day of the celebration. Finding accommodations in the city to attend the Boa Morte means planning well in advance. While tourists can travel from the larger city of Salvador, it is 66 miles away and can be quite a trip.

Pousada LaBarca http://labarca.zip.net/ on Rua Inocencio Boaventura 37 with a handful of small but spotless rooms with town views.

The best dining is at Recanto d’Ajuda, near the Boa Morte’s headquarters at 25 Rua Ana Nery, (55- 75) 425-4548 or (55-75) 425-3167, is an open-air restaurant with authentic Afro-Brazilian food. There is a lovely view of steeples and tile roofs.

There is another option for Cabana do Pai Tomás  with its excellent Bahia food, good value, also an hotel with a private and breakfast or the The Literary Café, a cozy place to drink chocolate-laced espresso and buy Brazilian CD’s.

Overview

Boa Morte, or the Festival of Good Death, occurs in a Bahian town called Cachoeira in the region of Reconcavo. It was here, amidst the fertile land that sugar cane and later tobacco became the main crops. Plantation owners imported African slaves for the field work. The town flourished becoming a major river port. When roads replaced rivers and its sugar production waned Cachoeira crumbled to ruins. The biggest tourist attraction in the areas is now Boa Morte.

The Festival

Boa Morte is celebrated from Aug. 13-15. The dates for the Boa Morte Festival are always the weekend, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin.  If August 15 falls on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, the celebration will be on the following weekend. These dates are confirmed 03 months before the celebrations begin, when the Sisters consult with the orixás for their permission to proceed with the celebrations. It is organized by the Boa Morte sisterhood.  This sisterhood is made up of older women who are descendants of African slaves. They dress up in their finery and jewelry to celebrate this festival. Boa Morte celebrates the birth and death of the Virgin Mary with three days of dancing, feasting, Masses and parades.

The principal day of the Festival of the Boa Morte, or Good Death, with a Mass, a parade and the samba de roda, is Aug. 15, Feast of the Assumption, with lesser events on Aug. 13 and 14. All activities begin at the Boa Morte headquarters, at Rua 13 de Maio, in the center of town.

Religion

The Festival is supposed to be a predominantly Catholic celebration. The festival celebrates Mary’s ascent into heaven as well as the freedom of the slaves. However, there are touches of African religion as well as political undertones throughout the three days.  References are constantly made to the Candomble deities, part of an African religion that achieves its spirituality through religious fervor and trances. The African slaves were able to practice their religion in secret gatherings disguising much of their practices as Catholocism.

The Boa Morte Sisterhood

The history of the Irmandade da Boa Morte (Sisterhood of the Good Death), a religious confraternity devoted to the Assumption of the Virgin, is part of the history of mass importation of blacks from the African coast to the cane-growing Reconcavo region of Bahia. In a patriarchal society marked by racial and ethnic differences, the confraternity is made up exclusively of black women, which gives this Afro-Catholic manifestation – as some consider it – a significant role in the annals of African Diaspora history. Besides the gender and race of the confraternity’s members, their status as former slaves and descendants of slaves is an important social characteristic without which it would be difficult to understand many aspects of the confraternity’s religious commitments. The former slaves have demonstrated enormous adroitness in worshipping in the religion of those in power without letting go of their ancestral beliefs, as well as in the ways they defend the interests of their followers and represent them socially and politically.

Founded in the 19th century the Boa Morte sisterhood was formed to pray for the dead and to make sure its members and family had appropriate funerals. The sisterhood was also involved in helping slaves escape or providing means for them to earn money to pay for their freedom. Despite being shrewdly cheated by a priest in the 1980s they still maintain their desire to celebrate the life and death of the Virgin Mary.

Day 1 (Friday)

5.00 pm - Ceremony begins at the premises of the Sistehood of the Boa Morte (Good Death) with a torchlit procession through the streets of Cachoeira as the Sisters, dressed in white, carry the prone figure of Our Lady Boa Morte.

The first day of the festival the sisterhood dresses in their best frippery. The blouses are decorated with ruffles and they wear large skirts to their ankles. Over their head is a dainty white turban and a white shawl covers their shoulders. They sparkle with jewelry including gold chains, colored beads and cowry shells.  They carry a figure of the Virgin Mary through the streets and then attend Mass.

After mass a ritural dinner of wine, rice, onions, potatoes and fish is served to anyone who wishes to feast.

Day 2 (Saturday)

6.00 pm – Religious ceremony in the premises of the Sisterhood follwed by another street procession, this time the Sisters in solemn black clothes, once again carrying the prone figure of Our Lady Boa Morte through the streets of Cachoeira.

The second day of the Festival is more somber as it marks the actual death of the Virgin Mary. The sisterhood wears long black skirts, with black shawls that have a red silk lining and no jewelry. They attend Mass and then a somber parade winds its way through the town.

Day 3 (Sunday)

10.00 – Religious ceremony in the Mass followed by procession through the streets of the town with the upright figure of Our Lady Gloria (Assumption). The Sisters are dressed in their full gala clothes of black, white and red. This is the highlight of the celebrations. Five Catholic priests officiate at the Mass. The sisters parade through town after the mass with bands trailing behind them   The Sisters later have their traditional “Samba de Roda”, a spinning samba only found in the Cachoeira region. This begins late aftrnoon and continues until early evening.

Recently the festival has become public news with television cameras showing the final procession through town. So many tourists have started to flock to the festival that the sisterhood now requires bodyguards to get safely through the city.